After U.S. Reps. Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth played a pickup game with President Obama, I thought it would be fun to ponder the link between athletic prowess and how it transfers to political power. I came up with a list of 11 players and one fabled coach who entered the political arena. It’s relatively rare for basketball fame to translate to political fortune, but here are 12, who tried, with some succeeding:
Kent Benson, secretary of state candidate: Benson’s past flirtation with politics was brief. He entered the 2002 secretary of state race as a Republican and then dropped out shortly thereafter. He was the No. 1 NBA draft pick for the Milwaukee Bucks after a sensational career at IU, where he was an All-American and led the team to the 1976 national title.
Ron Bonham, Delaware County commissioner: Bonham was a Democratic two-term commissioner. He was a member of two NBA title-winning Boston Celtics teams and played on the first edition of the Indiana Pacers. Bonham was a two-time, first-team all-starter at Muncie Central and graduated in 1960 as the all-time leading Bearcats scorer with 2,023 points and a Mr. Basketball title. Bonham helped the University of Cincinnati to one national championship.
Bobby Cantrell, Lake County political kingmaker: Cantrell became the man behind the curtain of Lake County politics until he was convicted on corruption charges earlier this year and is now in prison. Cantrell played with the 1960 East Chicago Washington state champs, winning the Trester Award. He then played for the 1964 Michigan Big 10 champs.
Lee Hamilton, U.S. House, 911 Commission: The congressional Democratic was a two-year starter for Evansville Central High School and as an All-Starter led his team to the 1948 Final Four, winning the Trester Award. Hamilton went on to be a four-year starter at DePauw. He was elected to Congress in 1964.
Bob Heaton, Indiana House candidate: He played at Indiana State on the 33-1 NCAA runner-up with Larry Bird in 1979. His left-handed shot with time expiring gave ISU a 73-71 upset victory over Arkansas paving the way for the classic Bird vs. Magic Johnson final against Michigan State. Heaton challenged and lost to State Rep. Vern Tincher in 2008 and is trying again this cycle.
Baron Hill, Indiana, U.S. House: Hill was an Indiana All-Star from Seymour who played ball at Furman University. Hill was elected to Congress in 1998 and has served all but one term since then. Hill is a potential 2012 Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Kyle Hupfer, candidate for Indiana House: Hupfer is challenging State Rep. Scott Reske. He served two years as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources under Gov. Daniels. He was a Pendleton HS basketball star who went on to Manchester College, where he played under Coach Steve Alford. That team advanced to the NCAA Division III national championship game and finished 31-1.
Clyde Lovellette, Vigo Sheriff, Wabash County Councilman: The 6-9 center led Terre Haute Garfield to state runner-up in 1947. He played for Coach Phog Allen at Kansas and was a teammate of Dean Smith, leading the Jayhawks to the 1952 title and was NCAA player of the year. He became the first player to win an NCAA title, an Olympic Gold Medal, and an NBA title with the Lakers and Celtics. Lovellette returned to Indiana where he served one term as Vigo County sheriff and later as Wabash County councilman.
Drake Morris, Indiana House candidate: After playing at East Chicago Washington, Morris starred for Purdue on the Final Four team that played at Market Square Arena in 1980. Morris scored 20 for Purdue as the Boilers upset Indiana 76-69 in the only meeting between the two schools in the NCAA Tournament. Morris challenged State Rep. Earl Harris in the 2008 Democratic primary, losing by about 2,800 votes.
Frank O’Bannon, governor, Indiana Senate: He played one year for Indiana University on the team that included the first Big 10 black basketball player, Bill Garrett. A campaign ad had him drilling a three-pointer.
Rod Roberson, Elkhart City Council: Roberson, a Democrat, is an Elkhart Central grad who played at Northwestern, once scoring 21 points to upset No. 4 ranked Michigan in 1981. He has served as president of the Elkhart City Council, but his latest fame came when he shot hoops with candidate Barack Obama at Riverview Elementary School a few days before the 2008 presidential primary.
Coach Marvin Wood, Indiana House candidate: Wood ran against State Rep. Craig Fry in the late 1980s in Mishawaka and lost. His 22-year coaching career was highlighted by the fabled 1954 performance of his Milan Indians team that struck a blow for small schools everywhere by beating Muncie Central. Wood inspired the Gene Hackman character in the movie “Hoosiers,” rated by ESPN experts as one of the greatest sports movies ever made.
(The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com)